Battling COVID-19, South Africa prepares for first vaccines

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Battling a COVID-19 resurgence driven by a more infectious variant, South Africa is preparing to roll out its first vaccines to frontline healthcare workers in February.

A delivery of one million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine is to arrive at Johannesburg’s international airport on Monday, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize announced on Wednesday night. He said the vaccines will go through a verification process and then will be distributed to all South Africa’s provinces for jabs to be given to doctors and nurses starting mid-February.

Mkhize said South Africa intends to vaccinate 67 per cent of its 60 million people in 2021, starting with the most vulnerable health workers.

The start of South Africa’s vaccination drive, one of the first in Africa, comes as the country has the continent’s highest numbers of confirmed cases and deaths. South Africa’s 1.4 million cumulative cases, including 41,797 deaths, represent about 40 per cent of the cases reported by all of Africa’s 54 countries.

The shipment of one million vaccine doses produced by the Serum Institute of India is to be followed by 500,000 doses in February.

The initial vaccines will not cover all of South Africa’s 1.25 million healthcare workers, so the first round will go to those with the highest risk in intensive care units, especially those performing intubations, health experts said.

South Africa’s department of health has appointed the Biovac Institute, a pharmaceutical and vaccine firm based in Cape Town, to “import, store, and distribute the 1.5 million doses of Covishield vaccine procured by the government from the Serum Institute of India”, the company said in a statement on Wednesday. Covishield is the name for the AstraZeneca vaccine produced in India.